Reasons for writing these memoirs — Noble origin of our family — John de la Fontaine born — Obtains a commission in the household of Francis I. — Embraces Protestantism — Persecution of Protestants — January Edict — John de la Fontaine resigns his commission — His assassination — Flight of his three sons — Arrival at Rochelle — Charitable reception — Marriage of James de la Fontaine — Attempt to poison him — Application for pardon to Henry IV
My dear children,
Having observed the deep interest you have taken in all that has befallen your ancestors, when I have related their adventures to you, I am induced to write down their history for your use, to the end that the pious examples of those from whom we derive our origin may not be lost to you, or those who succeed you.
I trust that it may be the means of engaging you to dedicate yourselves wholly and unreservedly to the service of that God whom they worshipped at the risk of their lives, and to be steadfast in the profession of that pure faith for which they suffered the severest hardships with unshaken constancy. And also that you may admire the watchful and wonderful providences of God exerted in supporting and preserving them through every trial. Indeed, without looking beyond the compass of your own memories, you may recall numberless instances of the providential care of that same God “whose hand is not shortened.”
For my own part, I trust that the making of this retrospect may be attended with great benefit, bringing before me the frailties and sins of each age and condition of my past life, and making me humble myself before the throne of grace, and with trembling pray for pardon through the mediation of my Blessed Saviour: and by the assistance of the Holy Spirit, I may hope for more watchfulness and circumspection for the time to come. And when I review the uncommon, innumerable, and unmerited mercies I have received through the whole course of my life, I hope my gratitude will be increased towards my Almighty benefactor, and surely I shall be encouraged to put my whole trust in him for the future. If I owe such a debt of gratitude for the things of this life, its comforts and conveniences, how incalculably great must it be for his mercy to my immortal soul, shedding the blood of his only begotten Son for my redemption. Oh my God! I entreat thee to continue thy goodness during the few days that may yet remain to me, and at last receive my soul. Amen.
Before proceeding to the history, I should mention that our name was originally De la Fontaine, and not Fontaine.
My father, from motives of humility was the first to cut off the De la, an indication of nobility; my older brothers wished to resume it, but he would not consent, having a large family and little property; for you must know that in France no one of noble family can engage in trade or the mechanic arts without forfeiting his claim to nobility.
The father of my great grandfather, who was a nobleman, could not bear the thought of bringing up his children without employment, according to the usual custom, and therefore placed his son in the King’s service.
It is with this John De la Fontaine that I commence these annals, he being the first of whom I have any accurate knowledge.
He was born in the province of Maine, about the year 1500, and as soon as he was old enough to bear arms, his father procured him a commission in what was then called Les ordonnances du Roi in the household of Francis I of France. It was in the tenth or twelfth year of this monarch’s reign that he entered his service, and he conducted himself so honourably and uprightly, that even after his father and himself had embraced Protestantism at its first preaching in 1535, he remained in the same situation, and continued there during the reigns of Henry II of France, Francis II of France, and until the second year of Charles IX. He married, and had at least four sons, when he retired from a service in which he had remained so long, only as a sort of safe-guard from persecution. The king’s officers were protected by right of their office; and our ancestor, it would appear, was much beloved by all his Juniors in the service, which made the Roman Catholic party afraid to meddle with him, though at the same time they thirsted for his blood, not only on account of his exemplary piety, but of the exercise of a power his office conferred upon him, and which he had freely used, of assisting the poor Protestants, many of whom he had shielded from persecution. From the year 1534 to April 1598, when Henry IV of France granted the Edict of Nantes, the professors of the pure faith were continually subjected to every variety of injustice and cruelty, as you have read in the history of France*
Open hostilities were occasioned by an event which occurred at the little town of Vassy, in Champagne, in the year 1562. The Protestants were engaged in prayer outside the walls, in conformity with the king’s edict, when the Duke of Guise approached. Some of his suit insulted the worshippers, and from insults they proceeded to blows, and the Duke himself was accidentally wounded in the cheek. The sight of his blood enraged his followers, and a general massacre of the inhabitants of Vassy ensued; the report of this roused the suffering Huguenots throughout the kingdom, and a savage and bloody war followed, during which, Anthony of Bourbon, king of Navarre fell fighting in the Catholic ranks, leaving a son eight years old, the future Henry IV., that great supporter of the Protestant cause. The constable Montmorency was taken prisoner, and the Duke of Guise slain; thus the Catholics were without a leader. The Prince of Conde being also a prisoner, and the Protestant Coligny the only chief remaining on either side, an accommodation appeared indispensable, and in March, 1563 an edict was granted which allowed the Huguenots to worship within the towns they were possessed of up to that day. This permission led some of the Bishops and other clergy who had embraced Protestantism, to celebrate divine worship in the cathedrals, according to the rites of the Reformed Church; such an extension of the meaning of the edict had never been contemplated, and it was soon modified by a declaration that ancient cathedrals should in no case be used as Protestant churches.
These forms of persecution were carried on with some of the forms of law, but the gallows were erected and the fires (“burning at the stake”)were kindled, not to support the law, but in order to extinguish, if possible, the very name of Protestant.
Another edict was passed very shortly, which imposed greater restrictions, and the Huguenots, (French Protestants) finding that they were likely to lose by edicts all that they had wrested from the king by the sword, prepared to take up arms again, and in, 1567 another struggle commenced, which, with a very short interval of peace, lasted until 1570, when a treaty was concluded upon terms so favourable to the Huguenots as to excite some suspicion in their minds that all was not right. They were to have liberty of conscience, and their worship was allowed in all the towns they had held during the war, and they were permitted to retain and garrison Rochelle, Montauban, Cognac, and La Charite, as guaranties for the observance of the treaty.
All had now the appearance of peace, but it was the delusive calm which precedes a storm; vengeance was preparing, and the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s day massacre followed, with all its horrors, which are too well known to need repetition. The number of Huguenots slaughtered, has been estimated at 50,000, those who survived were for a moment paralysed by the blow, and the Catholics themselves seemed stupefied with shame and remorse. Charles was as one struck by avenging retribution, he became restless, sullen, and dejected, and laboured under a slow fever to the day of his death. He tried to excuse his perfidy on the plea of its having been necessary for self- preservation, and he sent instructions to his ambassador in England to give such an explanation to queen Elizabeth. Hume speaking of this interview, says, “Nothing could be more awful and affecting than his audience. A melancholy sorrow sat on every face: silence as in the dead of night, reigned through all the chambers of the royal apartment; the courtiers and ladies clad in deep mourning were ranged on each side, and allowed him to pass without affording him one salute or favourable look, till he was admitted to the queen herself.”
The lives of the young Prince of Conde and Henry of Navarre had been spared, on condition of becoming Catholics, a condition to which they merely pretended to accede, as both attempted to escape from Paris immediately afterwards; Conde alone was successful, and placed himself at the head of the Huguenots; and this sect which Charles had hoped to exterminate at one blow soon mustered an army of 18,000 men, and they had kept possession of Rochelle and Montauban, besides many castles, fortresses, and smaller towns. Thus Charles, and Catherine his mother, gained nothing by their infamous treachery, but a character for perfidy and cruelty which has been unequalled in the annals of history.
After the death of Charles IX. the condition of the Huguenots was ever changing; they were frequently in the field, and when successful obtained favourable edicts, which were broken as soon as they laid down their arms, and then they would resume them, and fight until their success gained fresh concessions.
In 1576 the Catholic League was formed, having for its main object the exclusion from the throne of France of Henry of Navarre, who was next heir to Henry III, the reigning monarch. War was carried on between the League and the Huguenots until 1594, five years after the death of Henry III, when Henry IV, from motives of policy, united himself to the Catholic Church and was thereupon generally recognized as the legitimate monarch. He still felt favourably disposed towards his old friends, and in 1598 granted the celebrated edict of Nantes, which allowed them to worship in freedom in all towns where their creed was the prevailing one. They were to pay the regular tithe to the established Church but were permitted to raise money for their own clergy, and to hold meetings of their representatives for church-government. In all law suits Protestants were to have the privilege of one half the judges being of their own faith, and several towns were left in their possession for a limited time as a surety. The parliament objected to registering this edict, but the king was resolute, and finally overcame their obstinacy.
The means adopted, however, had frequently an opposite effect and increased the followers of the true faith. The martyrs by their constancy, proved, in many cases, the instruments which God made use of to open the eyes of the papists, and it was no uncommon occurrence to see those who had aided in the destruction of others rush to the same martyrdom themselves.
James Fontaine (1658) was the great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of Jared Smith (Editor of the AHB). He wrote an autobiography, the material of which was compiled and published by some of his descendants. The first publication is called, ”A Tale Of The Huguenots Or Memoirs Of A French Refugee Family (De La Fontaine)” (1838). The second publication is called, “Memoirs Of A Huguenot Family” (1872).